Saturday, May 17, 2008

What to Learn in College

My cousin Tommy has been involved with education for a very long time and recently wrote a book collecting some of his speeches to students. Many of them deal with liberal arts education.

I too think an undergraduate education should not be vocational. When my children went off to college, I spent some time thinking about what I wished them to learn in their first higher education adventure. I came up with three broad areas.

First is something that teaches them how to think logically. I mean that literally. It is important to be able to form a syllogism. I want them to understand that "if [x] then [y]" also means "if not [y] then not [x]". It is important for everyone to be able to form a chain of inferences that either prove or disprove a proposition. This is rigorously taught in mathematics, philosophy, and perhaps even physics classes.

Second, is something that teaches how vast and complex the world is. Because of this size and complexity, it is difficult to make simple statements truthfully explain real events. Even the simplest situations tend to be more complex than we initially expect. On the african savannah, elephants and other grazing animals eat acacia. To protect the trees, fences were put up. That harmed the trees. The trees live symbiotically with ants. The trees provide nectar, the ants discourage grazing. Without the grazing, the trees produced less nectar. With less nectar, different ants moved in. The new species of ant didn't protect the trees against beetles. We can learn about complexity from biology and history classes (among others).

Third is something that teaches about beauty. In my own life the study of aesthetics has been personally important and meaningful, so I feel this is an important area of knowledge. Art, music, dance, literature ... all provide roads to understanding of beauty. I have a personal preference for the non-verbal arts.

To these three, I think I would now add a fourth. I think the study of human motivation and behavior is becoming increasingly important. I also think that this study has to be based on the other three pillars. To understand human behavior you must be able to think clearly, understand complexity, and show compassion. I cannot verbalize, but I think that art is one path to compassion.

1 comment:

sf said...

This essay would have made a cool preface for your cuz's book.